Penn State

Graduate students rally, urge Penn State to address rising health insurance costs

Andrew Nortrup, a Penn State sophomore supporting one of his grad student teachers, chants during a rally against proposed healthcare cost increases on Friday, April 3, 2014.
Andrew Nortrup, a Penn State sophomore supporting one of his grad student teachers, chants during a rally against proposed healthcare cost increases on Friday, April 3, 2014. CDT photo

Penn State graduate student Lauren Brooks doesn’t live an extravagant lifestyle.

A doctoral candidate studying German, she receives a stipend and has to rely on food stamps. She’s maxed out on student loans to pay for school and living expenses, she says, and if proposed increases in her university health insurance go into effect, she’d be forced to forgo medical care because she would not be able to afford the premiums.

“I have nowhere to get the extra money,” Brooks said into a megaphone Thursday from the lawn in front of Old Main, where about 60 supporters assembled to raise awareness of the impending financial crisis they expect for Penn State’s graduate students.

The students are responding to the proposed changes, such as a 30 percent increase in premiums and significant jumps in their deductibles, such as from $75 to $250 for an individual under the new plan. They’re also looking at more out-of-pocket costs when their take-home pay is so little already, and the students have said the bigger picture means more expensive insurance with less coverage.

The students fear for their colleagues whose stipends are low, as the average stipend amount is $17,000. Graduate students who don’t receive funding from their academic departments toward tuition, such as law students, and international students could face much higher premium costs.

The university has said the rising costs are out of its control due to the federal Affordable Care Act, and the administration has pledged to increase contributions to premiums. A task force has been set up to study the issue, as well.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said Thursday the university is looking into the feasibility of joining with other institutions to create a larger pool of insured students, which officials hope would lower costs.

The rally, which featured chants of the familiar “We are” cheer followed by “scholars” or “teachers” as the two-syllable substitute for “Penn State,” drew graduate and undergraduate students and faculty, and even representatives from Teamsters Local 8, which represents 2,500 unionized Penn State employees.

Several students said the current insurance plan was a draw for them to choose Penn State. The plan’s provisions include 100 percent coverage of in-network costs and 80 percent of out-of-network health care bills.

Through the megaphone, doctoral candidate Stevie Berberick blared the group’s wishes and demands at Old Main, in the hope the administrators inside were listening. Berberick, one of the organizers, said the group wants the task force to come up with its recommendations for mitigating the issue before its July 1 deadline, and she said the university’s offer to increase stipends by 3 percent still won’t fix the problem.

“This is not enough because it benefits the least vulnerable students the most,” she said.

Brooks, the doctoral candidate in German, had the backing of a dozen or so undergraduates whom she’s taught in class. They encouraged her to take to the megaphone, and she explained to the crowd that she previously had an MRI on her hip and surgery was in the offing.

There’s no way that will happen with the proposed insurance rates, she said.

“I’m so far in debt it makes my head spin,” said Brooks, 33, referring to the thought of the tens of thousands of dollars in student loans she took out to afford school and living expenses.

Michelle Rodino-Colocino, an associate professor at the rally, offered her support for the cause, and she reminded the crowd about the faculty and staff wellness program that was introduced earlier this academic year but shelved after employees’ uproar over it. She also called upon the university to use money in its reserves to pay for the cost increases.

Cliff Hixson, of the Teamsters Local 8, told the crowd that his organization was closely watching how the dispute unfolds. He offered them support, too:

“We have your backs,” he said.

Powers said the graduate students’ concerns are on the radar of university officials. She said the university’s contributions toward the grad students’ premiums would keep the increases limited to $30 or less per month over the next 10 months.

“The university is not in control of the insurance plan changes, but we are working to try to answer student concerns where possible,” she said. “We also were caught off-guard by the changes resulting from the Affordable Care Act, and we hope that there are some viable options available that can help mitigate any hardship our students may face.”